Playwright Aaron Posner talks about “The Chosen” – new and improved and on stage at the Long Wharf
By Judie Jacobson
NEW HAVEN – In 1967, the acclaimed author Chaim Potok published his first – and arguably most famous – novel, The Chosen. Winner of the Edward Lewish Wallant Award and the National Jewish Book Award, the book remained on The New York Times’ best-seller list for 39 weeks and has sold close to four million copies.
Set deeply within the folds of the Orthodox Jewish world, The Chosen is nonetheless universal in theme as it tells a story of fathers and sons, of tradition and modernity, and of the difficult choices one must to make to achieve understanding.
It was precisely the kind of story playwright Aaron Posner was looking for when, in the early 1990s, he found himself in search of Jewish works to adapt for the stage.
Posner, who had gotten to know Potok through his attendance at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre, where Posner was a resident director and co-founder, decided to give the venerated author a call to ask for advice on what Jewish works he thought might make good adaptations. In preparation for that conversation, Posner decided to reread some of Potok’s books. He started with The Chosen. “I read it and thought, oh my God, I don’t need to look any further, this is amazing,” Posner said in an interview with Steppenwolf Theatre.
The result was a stage adaptation of the novel, written by Posner with the blessing and helping hand of Chaim Potok. The play premiered in Philadelphia around 1999. Since then, it has been presented on more than 100 stages all across the county and the world.
Now, a new version of the play, written by Posner, is set to premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre on Nov. 22, and run through Dec. 17.
“This is a beautiful story about the complicated relationship between parents and their children and how a friendship grows,” says Long Wharf artistic director Gordon Edelstein who is directing the production. “In many ways, this play talks about finding your family. Sometimes we seek our fathers in places other than our own homes,” he adds.
As for Posner, he is drawn to the core conflicts present in Potok’s novels: the tension between people and forces like family, religion, and society.
“His stories are filled with people doing their best to live their lives in keeping with their own deeply held beliefs and convictions. But sometimes, when those beliefs and convictions are in conflict within a community or family, or even within one’s self, it can be very tricky. That is where Chaim located most of his work. He explored big, hard questions in honest, intelligent, and insightful ways,” Posner says.
Posner is a Helen Hayes and Barrymore Award-winning director and playwright. He is a founder and former artistic director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre, and an associate artist at both the Folger Theatre and Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. In addition to The Chosen, he has adapted for the stage Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev which ran for 10 months Off-Broadway and won both the Outer Circle Critics Award for Best New Off-Broadway play and the John Gassner Award. He has also adapted Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, Mark Twain’s A Murder, A Mystery, and a Marriage and an adaptation of three Kurt Vonnegut short stories, entitled Who Am I This Time? (and other conundrums of love).
His Chekhov-inspired play “Stupid Fucking Bird” debuted at Woolly Mammoth and won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Resident Play as well as the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Play or Musical. His second Chekhov adaptation Life Sucks premiered at Theatre J and the third, No Sisters, was produced by Studio Theatre. He recently won a Jeff Award for Best Director for his work on The Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Raised in Eugene, Oregon, Posner graduated Northwestern University and is an Eisenhower Fellow. He lives near Washington, DC.
Recently, the Ledger spoke with Posner about the Long Wharf’s upcoming production of “The Chosen.”
JEWISH LEDGER (JL): How did you come to rework The Chosen into a play?
AARON POSNER (AP): The truth is, I launched into this project at a time in my life – my mid-30s – when i called myself Jewish and I thought of myself as Jewish and I certainly was Jewish, but I didn’t know what I meant when I said that since I wasn’t religiously Jewish. So this project came to be many, many years ago out of a real sort of conversation with myself over how I thought of myself as a person who was Jewish and what that meant; what that identity was. That led me to want to work on something that would help me explore that, and so I started reading a lot of Jewish literature. I had read The Chosen probably in junior high, and when I thought about going to ask Chaim Potok for his advice – because we both lived in Philadelphia at the time and I thought I would ask him for advice – I thought I should reread some of his books first. So I reread The Chosen and I just fell so in love with it, with its depth and simplicity and heart, with the incredible passion of the characters. So, instead of looking for advice on what to do I decided I would ask for permission to adapt that novel.
JL: Did you relate to the particular story in a personal way?
AP: Not in an autobiographical sense. I mean there are not that many men in the world who [don’t have issues in their] relationships with their parents and with their fathers in particular; so, certainly, there were things about the dynamic between fathers and sons in that story that I found interesting and engaging, just as there are things about that friendship and things about that time. Writing about things that go so deep – things that Potok would call ‘core conflicts’ – is why, I think, his novels became so popular across so many boundaries; because they are so relatable no matter who you are. Trying to figure out how to live your life; trying to figure out what your path through life is; understanding how to cross bridges when you run into genuine differences with people that you love – these are things that are wildly relatable across all boundaries.
JL: Was Potok involved in the writing?
AP: Absolutely. We worked on it together and he had a powerful hand in it.
JL: What was he like?
AP: There are all kinds of stories about him. To me, he was wise, helpful, attentive, inspiring. I had nothing but the most positive relationship with him. Some people found him difficult – a little bit taciturn. He could be gruff. But I think he liked what I was doing. He liked my ideas and he was very helpful and very willing to engage with me in any way that I wanted to. It was truly a great pleasure. It was actually one of the joys of my life to have the chance to work on this project together.
He lived to see both the original production produced on stage – and a couple of other productions, I think. I continued to work with his widow, Adina, when I adapted My Name is Asher Lev; with her permission and blessing and advice. She was very much a part of the conversation and very helpful.
JL: How does this production of The Chosen differ from your previous version? And why did you “fix” it if it wasn’t “broke?”
AP: The previous five-actor version had an older Reuben serving as narrator. That’s the version that’s been done for the last 20 years. But I had worked with [artistic director] Gordon Edelstein on the Long Wharf’s very successful presentation of “My Name is Asher Lev,” and we developed a good relationship and started talking about “The Chosen.” He said how much he loved it and he wondered if it could be better. I said, “Well, I wrote it 20 years ago and I loved what I did, but let’s have a conversation.” That led to a workshop. And so, the version you are going to see at Long Wharf has one fewer actor. The narrator is no longer a part of the play; in this version, young Reuben both narrates and is part of the story. And there are a number of other changes as well.
I think it’s now a more dynamic more streamlined play. I’m really very excited about this new version. I think it’s going to be stronger in every way. I love the old version, too but I’m hoping this is even better.
JL: Do you think non-Jewish audiences can relate to this story as well as Jewish audiences?
AP: I know for a fact that they do. I know it from hundreds of conversations over the years with non-Jewish audiences. This play has had over 100 productions around the country and around the world over the course of 20 years, and I’ve seen more than a dozen of those productions, and I’ve been part of audience conversations and talk-backs and lectures.
Chaim was writing about a very particular world and a very particular perspective, but he was passionate in every conversation about the fact that this should not be exotic or rarefied or unavailable to non-Jewish audiences. He took the greatest pride, as do I, when the people who connected with it were not Jewish. I’ve loved having the play done by Jewish theaters – and it’s been done by many, many Jewish theaters across the country – but I like it even more when it’s done by mainstream theater, when the audience is a mix of Jews and non-Jews. Chaim was writing from such a human place and there are so many ways to enter into it – there are family ways, there are friendship ways, there are struggle ways, there are political ways, there are social ways. There are so many avenues in and, while Jewish identity is certainly one of those, and a powerful one, it is so radically not the only one.
JL: You yourself have much experience working as a director. Were you involved in this production beyond being the play’s author?
AP: Oh yes, I directed the original production and several other times. I’ve been a director for 30 years and ran two theaters and have directed a couple of hundred productions all over the country. So, I have strong feelings about it directorially and one of the great pleasures of working with someone as smart and sophisticated as Gordon Edelstein is that as we’ve been working on it together, with me as playwright and him as director. I show him things that he finds challenging and he shows me whole new things in the script that I didn’t even see. So even though I myself am a director, nothing makes me more happy than working with other really good directors on my material.
JL: Will you be here for the production at the long wharf?
AP: I’ve been up there already and I will be back as well.
Long Wharf Theatre presents “The Chosen,” adapted by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok from the novel by Potok, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, Nov. 22 – Dec. 17; on the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck Mainstage, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Tickets start at $29. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit longwharf.org. (203) 787.4282.